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  STANDARD OF THE COMMANDER IN CHIEF OF THE CONTINENTAL U.S. NAVY, BETTER KNOWN AS THE "GADSDEN FLAG," CIRCA 19-TEENS – 1940’s

Available: Sold
Frame Size (H x L): 48.5" x 72"
Flag Size (H x L): 37" x 60"
Description....:
In modern times, one of the most admired devices across early American flags is the rattlesnake. I receive a ton of requests for what is typically referred to as "Don't Tread on Me" flags. Unfortunately, most of the rattlesnake designs do not even exist, except in drawings or paintings. Only two survive in fragmentary form, neither of which is the popular First Navy Jack, with its slithering snake against a field of red and white stripes, or the Standard of the Commander In Chief of the Continental Navy, better known as the "Gadsden Flag," with its coiled snake on a buff yellow ground.

One of the surviving examples with rattlesnake imagery is the standard of the 5th Independent Battalion, (a.k.a., Westmoreland Pennsylvania Battalion or Proctor's Brigade). This may date as early as 1775. Measuring 6' 4" x 5' 10", it is in the collection of the William Penn Memorial Museum in Harrisburg.

The other is the field colors of a Rhode Island artillery unit, which is among the holdings of the Rhode Island Historical Society. While the flag may date to 1775, and is rumored to have possibly belonged to the "United Company of the Train of Artillery of 1775", no documentation of a chain of accession exists. Measuring 3' 4" x 4' 2", its connection to the unit is made by way of an article that appeared in the 1925 issue of the "Rhode Island Historical Society Collections". There is a signature of a painter, John R. Penniman, on an anchor that appears on the flag. Penniman was active in Boston in 1826. No one is sure if the flag is original, or was repainted later, or if the banner was simply made in the 1820's. 1820's manufacture seems most likely in this case, because 1826 was the 50th anniversary of American independence and a time of much celebration. Well-funded militia units would have ordered beautiful silk flags for parade use.

The flag that is the subject of this narrative is a vintage copy of the Gadsden design, probably made sometime in the era between the WWI (U.S. involvement 1917-1918) and the 1920’s. The construction of this example is of the highest quality of the time, equivalent to the best wool flags being commercially produced by firms such as Annin in New York City. The deep, yellow field is made of wool bunting of a very high grade. The device and letters are made of black, plain weave cotton, that has been appliqued with a zigzag machine stitch. Black thread was utilized for the application of the letters, but white was used for the snake, the detail of which was then added by way of the same stich, used in a decorative fashion. There is a heavy canvas binding along the hoist, with two brass grommets of extra substantial scale and quality given what is typically encountered on a flag of this scale. While the flag has the quality attributes better associated with those of the teens and 20’s, and is certainly not indicative of the scaled back materials common to flags of the private sector in the 1930’s, during the Great Depression, it could be that it was produced in the 1940’s, in the era surrounding WWII (U.S. involvement 1941-1945). Wool bunting generally disappears in that decade, though the demands of custom work may have required it.

I would suggest that the flag was probably produced for someone like department store mogul John Wannamaker, a high-end collector that commissioned top quality examples for store displays on patriotic occasions, or for an organization such as the Daughters of the American Revolution, for display at parades or special events.

While use a zigzag stitch for decorative use tends to appear more often later than earlier, work in the custom shops seems to have been completed in a very much individualized fashion. It is likely that there was some creativity at hand in these departments that was not common in the prescribed examples being made elsewhere as line items, in general production.

American forefather John Jay attributed the design of the Standard of the Commander in Chief of the U.S. Navy to Christopher Gadsden, South Carolina Delegate to the Continental Congress, who from December, 1775 to January, 1776, served as chairman of the Marine Committee. This was the congressional sub-committee charged with oversight of the Navy. Though the Gadsen flag does not survives, there are numerous notations of its existence. In his book, "Standards & Colors of the American Revolution" (1982, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia), author Edward W. Richardson explains "There is strong evidence that Commodore Esek flew this standard from the main mast of his flagshp, the 'Alfred,' during the Continental Navy's first expedition against Nassau, Bahamas, in Spring 1776." The list of signals to outfit the Alfred included three flags: the national colors, a jack, and "the standard."

Richardson also notes that when Gadsden gave up chairmanship of the Marine Committee, because he was needed in South Carolina, upon his return to Charleston, he presented the provisional congress with: "an elegant standard, to be used by the commander in chief of the American navy; being a yellow field, with a lively representation of a rattlesnake in the middle, in the attitude of going to strike, and these words underneath, 'Don't Tread on Me!” This appeared in the congressional journal for July 9th, 1776, along with an order that it was to be preserved and suspended in the camber in which they met. It was afterwards hung in the southwest corner of the room, to the left of the president's chair.

In his book "Origin and History of the American Flag, Vols. I & II" (1917, Nicholas L. Brown / Central Press, Philadelphia), author George Henry Prebble states that John Jay, in a July, 1776 letter, speaks of flags with a "rattlesnake rearing its crest and shaking its rattles, and having the motto, 'Don't Tread on Me.'"

The reason that this flag is so interesting is because, in spite of its popularity today, reproduction of the design over time was extremely limited. While examples do occasionally appear in early engravings of displays in World's Fairs, such as the 1876 Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia, actual surviving examples that are antique or vintage are so few and far between that they are all but non-existent. Even those dating to the early-mid 20th century, like this example, are very scarce. Further, this is the nicest copy of that era that I have ever encountered.

Mounting: The flag was mounted and framed within our own conservation department, which is led by expert staff. We take great care in the mounting and preservation of flags and have framed thousands of examples.

The flag has been hand-stitched to 100% cotton twill, black in color, that has been washed and treated for colorfastness. The mount was then placed in a shadowbox style molding with a gilded face and black-painted sides. Spacers keep the textile away from the glazing, which is U.V. protective glass.

Condition: Overall excellent. There is extremely minor mothing, but there are no other significant condition issues.
Collector Level: Advanced Collectors and the Person with Everything
Flag Type: Sewn flag
Star Count:
Earliest Date of Origin: 1915
Latest Date of Origin: 1945
State/Affiliation:
War Association:
Price: SOLD
 

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